Moving on out or a storm in a coffee cup?

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The Conservative party are changing; at least that’s what leader David Cameron would like you to believe. One of the key architects of the change is Francis Maude, former Foreign Office minister and now chairman of the Conservative Party.

In his first major interview on gay rights, he explains to’s Benjamin Cohen that his party’s approach to gay rights in the 1980s and 1990s were wrong, that Section 28 was a mistake and expresses his love for his openly gay brother who died of AIDs 12 years ago.

Francis Maude sits in his office above a Starbucks and sips upon his mochachino coffee. Spotting my mp3 player, he exclaims: “I couldn’t live without mine, they’re great aren’t they!” sits snugly on his computer screen and he explains that he’s just been making one of his regular visits to the website.

This is a man clearly willing to modernise, his drink, technology and dress sense are a clear break from the Tory-boy years. He uses phrases like “moved on” constantly as he tries to explain away his party’s past and look towards a more socially liberal future.

“We’ve been seen for a long time as a party which hasn’t been very open to gay people. That’s wrong.” Asked if this was morally wrong, he said: “yes, totally.” His voice cracking he adds: “I feel very strongly about this, I had a brother who was gay and died from AIDs, 12 years ago now.”

Part of the problem with attempting to engage with the gay community is that the community has long memories and deep routed suspicions of the motives of Conservatives claiming to be pro-gay. “I’ve been conscious that too many gay people who are conservative leaning have not felt comfortable to support us.”

“The thing that really brought it home to me most recently was a story Nicholas Boles, our candidate in Hove told me. He was canvassing and a guy said: ‘I can’t vote Conservative because I’m gay’. Nicholas replied: ‘I’m gay too’. The man appeared perplexed and claimed we’re an anti-gay party, but that sort of perception is intolerable. However, we’ve begun to redress it.”

In 2002, Alan Duncan became the first openly gay sitting Conservative MP. Francis Maude claims that it was a necessary move forward for the party. “Being a Conservative MP was by then virtually the only work environment where there were no openly gay people represented.” With a slight smile he adds: “expect perhaps for the Lib Dems, they’ve certainly made up for that in recent weeks.”

Perhaps remembering the moment his brother came out to him, he adds: “It is a shame that people can’t be open about sexuality but I don’t think any of us should underestimate how hard it is to come out.”

“Chris Smith [the former Labour cabinet minister] came out way back, more than two decades ago. That was a bloody brave thing to do especially in the 1980s.”

Commenting on the public outing of Simon Hughes as bisexual, he adds his support to the embattled Liberal Democrat leadership candidate: “I thought Simon’s explanation for his secrecy was so real. He didn’t want to rub his sexuality in the nose of his elderly mother. I can appreciate it.

“We shouldn’t criticise, that will change as time will go on. I hope we’re becoming a society where all of this matters much less and sooner it happens the better. People should be able to be more at ease with themselves.”

The anti-gay policies the Conservatives presented to the country during the 1980s and the 1990s, were Mr Maude claims “wrong.” One of the most controversial policies was Section 28, which he claims was: “in hindsight a mistake, I voted for it, I was a minister.”

He however claims that there were some genuine reasons for adopting the policy: “Some local authorities were actively promoting homosexuality to school children at a time when gay sex under the age of 21 was illegal.

“However, times have moved on and the Conservatives should have move on with it much, much earlier and we didn’t. A big part of our problem more generally was that we have failed to keep pace with change in society.”

In 2002, Mr Maude joined with his close political friend, Michael Portillo and voted for gay couples to adopt children jointly. By voting with the government, they rebelled against a three-line whip and permanently destabilised the tenuous leadership of Iain Duncan Smith.

“I thought that opposing the right of gay couples to adopt was an absurd thing to do. It was already legal for single gay people to adopt but not for couples. It seemed to me right those couples that wished to give a loving home to a child that would otherwise not have a home seems to me to be obviously humane to allow that to happen.”

In 2004, Michael Howard, the then leader and architect of Section 28 decided to personally support the establishment of civil partnerships: “The Government thought that Civil Partnerships would be a trap for us, they wanted us to oppose it, as we had done with adoption issue but they hadn’t reckoned that the Conservative Party had by then moved on.”

In a message that will certainly upset die-hard Thatcherites like Norman Tebbit, he claims that gay partnerships pose no threat to the family. “For me its all to do with family values it is better for society that we should recognise those couples who wish to make a long term commitment to share responsibilities. It’s about strengthening our society.”

With a hint of remorse he sighs and adds: “This is all informed by my family, my wonderful, intelligent, beloved brother. The gay scene in London in the 1980s was quite aggressively promiscuous and I think if society generally and the government I served in had been more willing to recognise gay people then there would have been less of that problem.”

Looking me in the eye, he adds with regret: “A lot of people like my brother would not have succumbed to HIV and lost their lives.”

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For more information on Francis Maude visit